Rum. Just the saying the word can elicit many intense feelings and sensations. Thirst. Pain. Want. Need. Poets, or at least poetic pirates, sailors and fishermen, through the centuries have sung its praises while under its influence, only to cry in anguish in its aftermath. Preachers have castigated its users and producers and characterized it as “demon rum”. Many islands produce rum but this is the story of only one of them, one which I have come over the last 15 years to know quite well. It goes by the name Sunset.
Sunset, by which I mean the rum which is sub-titled Very Strong Rum, is a white rum produced on the island of St Vincent in the Windward Islands of the West Indies. It is a once both a source of local pride, as it is at 170 proof the strongest rum made in the Caribbean, and national shame due to its many corrosive effects on the fabric of family and society at large. Strong rum is incredibly cheap, a ½ pint bottle can be had in most rum shops for a mere ec$5 and as noted above it is strong enough to render a grown man senseless in short order. It is a hidden dragon used as the base for signature rum punches at many reputable establishments, which only later does the now jelly legged tourist realize was masked at first by the sweet fruit and nutmeg they tasted when it hit the tongue. Mostly though it is sold at rum shops and village groceries and consumed overwhelming by men in “shotties”, small sips poured into a “plastic glass”, followed by chaser which if the men are feeling flush is a splash of a soft drink or more often water.
I first encountered it late night at the legendary nightspot Penthouse, a small cinder block shack on the edge of Port Elizabeth, Bequia. Run by a young guy with dreads, whose name escapes me now, it was the place to go when all others shut down. Whether there were 200 people outside or just 2, he would play great music and serve drinks until no-one wanted more. The place is so small that by necessity most of the action takes place outside with the street serving as the dance floor and the low walls around as its ersatz seating. Often, when attempting to describe the place to friends in the US, I would say that it was like a boombox on the side of the road with drinks coming out of it. One night I offered to buy a couple local guys that I knew a beer. They asked me instead to get them rum and chaser which, it was pointed out, would cost ec$2 less than the beers. Inside the Rasta took a funnel, poured the clear liquid into a half pint bottle and gave it to me with a bottle of Pepsi and a couple plastic cups. My two friends and several other opportunists performed the ritual of shotties and insisted that I join in for one. It smelled like paint thinner and went down like jet fuel but after the sweet splash of Pepsi there was only a warmth spreading through me. I got another and then another “quart”, assured by the locals that drinking strong rum never, ever leads to a hangover. This was just an amuse-bouche to the cavalcade of untrue claims about the properties of strong rum that I have since encountered and, needless to say, the next morning, so blinding was the pain behind my eyes, that I wished I were dead and swore never to drink again.